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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Feeling Like an Outsider in an Insider's World

Almost everyone has had the experience, at one time or another, of feeling like an outsider in an insider's world.  This can be a passing experience, as when you experience yourself as "different" from those around you in a particular situation.  Or, it can be an ongoing experience when, for example, you're the "black sheep" in your family, you're part of a racial minority group in a community that is mostly White, a gay person in a mostly straight world or an artist who sees the world differently than most people around you.

Feeling Like an Outsider in an Insider's World

Being an Outsider
At times, a person can feel like an outsider when there's no obvious difference, on the surface, between her and the people around her.  In this case, it's more of an internal, emotional experience of being an outsider that might be more subtle and harder to define.

The people around the person who feels like an outsider might not even be aware that this is how she feels because, over time, she's learned to adapt and play a "role" to fit in.  But, her internal experience might be that she feels inauthentic because she's going through the motions to fit in rather than being her true self.

It might be dangerous, in certain situations.  In certain cultures, people are still ostracized for being different or expressing different views.  So, in order to remain a part of the community, someone who sees things differently might have to squelch that part of him or herself in order to survive, emotionally and, possibly, in practical ways as well.  This person, of course, pays a price emotionally  for appearing to conform.  In cases like this, this person is often acutely aware of the dissonance between the "role" s/he plays and his or her internal experience.

Feeling like an outsider isn't always a negative experience.  There are also many people, who are fortunate enough to live in places with a more heterogeneous population, who enjoy the outsider role.  It makes them feel special or unique.  The people around them might admire this person for being bold or innovative.

If you feel like an outsider, you might also feel ambivalent, at times, about your outsider role.  At times, you might be relieved to see things differently than most people around you.  And, at other times, you might mostly feel this way, but you might also, at the same time, long for a sense of sameness with your family or community.  Being or feeling different, no matter how much others accept you, can still be lonely.

I've been in Riccione, Italy for the last week.  I'm one only two Americans at my hotel, and this has been an interesting experience.

On an external level, the other American and I are the outsiders in this culture, even though everyone here has been so warm and welcoming and make every effort to include us in their conversations.  Even if some of them speak only a little English, they've made the effort to communicate with us and make us feel comfortable in their group.  Most of them have known each other for a few years so the other American and I are the outsiders.

In situations like this, coming into a group that has bonded with each other can be awkward and established group members often resent interlopers.  But I don't sense that with this group.  On the contrary, many of them seem to enjoy finding out about what it's like to live in New York City.  And,  I've also very curious what their experiences have been growing up and living in Italy.  So, we've been sharing our stories.

As a child, I grew up mostly around my father's side of the family.  My grandfather was originally from Naples and my grandmother's family came from Calabria.  My grandfather came to New York by himself as  teenager, and he never went back home to see his family, even though they were a close knit family.  People didn't travel as easily and as often then as they do now.

Our family was a traditional Italian-American family.  As a child, I felt loved and accepted most of the time.  But I was also very aware that I had different feelings and views than my traditional family.     Increasingly, even though I loved my family and felt loved by them, I felt stifled by the family traditions.  I wanted more freedom, especially as a teenager, to be more autonomous and live more independently.

 This became a struggle in my family because most of them couldn't understand why I felt this way.  They couldn't understand why I couldn't be happy living as they lived and as many generations before them had lived.  And I couldn't articulate my feelings to them as well.  So, increasingly, I felt like an outsider in my family.  At times, it was a relief to feel apart in some ways, and other times it was painful.

By the time, I was 18, I moved out to live in Greenwich Village.  At the time, this was considered outrageous behavior in my family, where young women stayed at home until they got married.  But a whole new world opened up to me when I moved to the Village.  I met many different people from different cultures and ways of life.  I also had new experiences that I never would have had if I had stayed in the community where my family lived.  I felt accepted and understood.

Feelings of Being an Outsider Can Be Part of a Transitional Time or a Lifelong Process
Feeling like an outsider can be part of a lifelong process.  For many people, this process is a transitional process from feeling unaccepted, either by yourself or your community, to feeling accepted, if not by the external world, at least, accepting yourself.

For other people, the experience remains the same--feeling unaccepted in their own hearts as well as in their community.  This can bring with it unbearable shame and sadness, even when we know that, to live authentically, we have no choice but to be ourselves, whether we're accepted or not.

It's very important to have emotional support if you're going through a painful experience of being an outsider, whether others see you as an outsider or not or if this is your own inexplicable personal and private experience.

We're hardwired for attachment with others, and feeling like an outsider in an insider's world can be a lonely and sad experience.  But, when you've transitioned through this experience, it can also lead to a great deal of personal growth.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:

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